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FIRST FORENSIC MAP / FAMOUS MURDER TRIALS: Map of the Roads, near to the Spot Where Mary Ashford was Murdered


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This rare and unusual broadside map, important for many of its aspects, presents the location and surroundings, where the body of a young servant Mary Ashford was found in a pond, in 1817. It showcases the larger area with houses and villages, where the events of the fatal night were taken place, and inset maps and a drawing present the field and the pond. Marked are also all the forensic evidence, such as the exact position of the body, track of blood and various types of footsteps.

The text on the bottom mentions, that a few of the roads and fields have been omitted, “where it was thought that they would tend rather to confuse than add to the utility of the map”. The text also describes the circumstances of the death, evidence, trial and distances between the locations.

Death of Mary Ashford

Mary Ashford, a 20 year old servant and housekeeper to her uncle, was found dead in a pond around 6 am on May 27, 1817, between Birmingham and Sutton Coldfield. On the previous evening she attended a local dance party with a friend Hannah Cox, where Ashford met a young man called Abraham Thornton with whom she spent dancing most of the night. Late in the evening Cox, Ashford and Thornton left together. Visibly attracted to each other, the latter two soon made an excuse to lose Cox and according to Thornton’s words spent a night together, causing Mary Ashton to lose her virginity.

At about 4 am Mary Ashford came to Cox’s house to pick up her working clothing and to exchange a few words. Thorton claimed, that Ashford walked towards her uncle’s house in a neighbouring village in the north, where she started her work early, and he left for his home in the direction of south-east.

Ashford was found dead in a pond by the road on the way to her uncle’s place about two hours later. Her shoes, one smeared with blood, and some neatly folded clothing were laying nearby.

Male and female footprints were found on the meadow by the pond, but were only briefly inspected, before being partly destroyed by the rain.

There were no signs of violence on Mary Ashford’s body and her clothing was intact. The cause of death was drowning.

Arrest and Trial

Soon Abraham Thornton was arrested for murder of Mary Ashford. The prosecution’s theory was, that Thorton followed Ashford and after her refusal he raped and killed her. Thorton defended himself, that the sexual act earlier in the evening was consensual and that they separated ways around 4 am.

The local roads were surprisingly busy on the night of the death of Mary Ashford by young people walking home from a local dance and by workers rushing to do early morning chores. Ashford and Thornton were seen together and later separately by several passers-by, all confirming Thornton’s story.

Abraham Thornton was acquitted but was seen as a murderer by wider population. Soon Mary’s brother William Ashford filed an appeal of murder against Thornton and Abraham Thronton was arrested again on October 1, 1817. Thornton, a physically large and strong man, surprisingly claimed the right to defend himself against this retrial by an ancient procedure of trial by combat, which is the right to settle the suit by requesting a “wager of battle” with the plaintiff, who was in this case rather feeble William Ashford. The last case of such an ordeal in England was recorded in the 15th century. With Ashford successfully avoiding the combat, the court again acquitted Abraham Thornton, who soon moved to the United States, where he started a new life.

After the trial the British law was changed, banning the possibility of trial by combat.

Modern Theories and Victim Blaming

The circumstances of Mary Ashford’s death remain unknown until today. Recent, more plausible explanation interprets her death as a freak accident with a possibility that Ashford, somehow tired and not very attentive after an adventurous night, slipped and drowned in a pond while trying to wash blood from between her legs in early morning hours on the way to her daily work. The post-mortem showed that she was bleeding after losing her virginity and was probably menstruating. She also had not eaten in 24 hours.

At the time no women were allowed at the trial due to the lurid nature of the evidence and all the proofs were presented by men only. Female medical issues were not discussed nor were well understood.

A large part of the trial was based on the victim blaming, exceedingly popular in the early 19th century, making Mary Ashford the victim for her “sin”, in this case the premarital sex, making no room to consider the case as a freak accident.

Ashford was after her death set an example for girls going to parties and meeting men. Her gravestone, still preserved today, reads:

As a warning to female virtue and a humble monument to female chastity, this stone marks the grave of Mary Ashford who on the twentieth year of her age having incautiously repaired to a scene of amusement without proper protection, was brutally murdered on 27th May 1817.

Such “murder stones” were common in England, mostly in the 1820s, usually blaming female murder victims for their own deaths and warning other young women of the consequences of committing similar “immoral” acts.

The “Murderabilia Market” of Mary Ashford’s Death

The trial was exceedingly advertised and especially intriguing, as women were not allowed into the courtroom due to the involvement of at the time immoral subjects, such as premarital sex and one-night stands. At the time several publications were printed with reports of the story, keeping people guessing about various solutions of the murder and the outcome of the trial.

Several ephemeral publications on the murder case and trial, as well as reports from the court were issued at the time with titles such as The affecting case of Mary Ashford, a beautiful young virgin, who was diabolically ravished, murdered, and thrown into a pit, as she was returning from a dance. At least two theater plays were dramatically presenting the events of the fatal nights, attracting the audience with headings: The Mysterious Murder: or, What’s the clock? A melo-drama in three acts [and in prose]. Founded on a tale too true [the murder of Mary Ashford]. Written by George Ludlam and The Murdered Maid; or the Clock struck Four!!! a drama in three acts [and in prose, founded on the murder of Mary Ashford.

Rowland Hill as a Map Maker

Rowland Hill, a man with an impressive biography of achievements, is today probably most recognized by his invention of a modern postage stamp.

As a young man Rowland Hill attended a school not far away from the location, where Mary Ashford died. An amateur carpenter, clockmaker, locksmith already in his teens and enthusiastic map-maker in the geography class as a pupil, 22-year old Hill decided to survey and draw a map of the location of the murder scene at the peak of the nation’s fascination in the trial. The product was an impressively modern map with all the commodities, still used today by self-declared sleuths trying to resolve crimes with a help of modern media, mostly Google maps: a map of a larger area, a zoomed-in map of the scene of the crime and a “street view” of the pond, where the body was found.

All the other Rowland Hill’s surveying and map-making achievements are recorded in documents only and the present map is apparently his single known draft surviving until today. He was recorded as a keen map-maker at the school, when he was appointed to make a school atlas at the age of sixteen. His map of the Iberian Peninsula was according to the records printed (Campbell 1990), although presently no examples of it are recorded. Hill also surveyed the playground of his father’s school and, in 1819, the city of Birmingham.

Various States

Rowland Hill published this map together with his friend George Morecroft, “a former schoolfellow, to whom, though he was much older than myself, I was then giving private lessons in surveying” (Campbell 1990).

Shorty after the map was printed, Hill records in his notes, that another unauthorized version was issued without his knowledge. After he intended to sue the publisher, he realized, that his version never quoted the date of the publication, required by the ‘Hogarth’ Copyright Act. To prevent further printing he ‘immediately had the plate altered before any more impressions were taken’ (Campbell 1990).

Shorty after the map was printed, Hill records in his notes, that another unauthorized version was issued without his knowledge. After he intended to sue the publisher, he realized, that his version never quoted the date of the publication, required by the ‘Hogarth’ Copyright Act. To prevent further printing he ‘immediately had the plate altered before any more impressions were taken’ (Campbell 1990).

The two states, both rare and printed in November 1817, before the plate was altered, can be today identified as versions, only differing by the imprint in the left-hand corner below the map:

– The first state would have an imprint without a date: Birmingham. Surveyed by Rowland Hill & George Morecroft, Nov.r 1817. & Published by Row.d Hunter, S. Pauls Church Yard London
– The second, dated unauthorized state: Birmingham. Surveyed by Rowland Hill & George Morecroft; & Published for them Nov.r. 21st 1817 as the Act directs by J. Belcher & Son Birmingham. & Row.d Hunter London.

The present map is the first state without a date.

Reduced reproductions of our map appeared in contemporary publications such: A Report of the Proceedings against Abraham Thornton, at Warwick Summer Assizes, 1817, for the Murder of Mary Ashford; and, subsequently in the Court of the King’s Bench, in an appeal of the said murder, by John Cooper, Warwick: Heathcote and Foden, published by John Fairburn, Fairburn’s Edition of the Whole Proceedings on the Writ of Appeal of William Ashford against Abraham Thornton, for the Wilful Murder of Mary Ashford, a Beautiful Young Virgin with the map made by George Cruikshank (1792 – 1878) and in Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum Or, Magazine of Remarkable Characters, Volume 6 (1920).

In 1819, a broadside titled A correct view of the spot where the unfortunate Mary Ashford was ravished and murdered, made by George Cruikshank, and showcasing the road view with the pond was published.

The Note on Rarity

The map was only printed for a short time in November 1917, before the plate was altered, and is today exceedingly rare.

The present map is the only example of both states, that we could trace on the market.

The British library holds an example of the first state (OCLC 794011454, 557313810, 1120163049 – unclear if three different examples or the same copy entered three times; the imprint on the map from the British Library, described by Campbell, corresponds to the first state).

We could trace a single example of the second state, housed at the Harvard Library (click here for a scan: Map of the roads, near to the spot where Mary Ashford was murdered – English Crime and Execution Broadsides – CURIOSity Digital Collections (harvard.edu), OCLC 80094038).


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